Portraits in Progressive Activism

Sharing our Activism: Melissa Bruzzano

by Laurie Williams, with Melissa Bruzzano

Melissa Bruzzano is a person filled with gentle strength — and it’s reflected in her passionate, intense energy, and in her welcoming and inclusive ways. That strength underlies her activism, which has included: leading marchers while chanting with a megaphone; hosting movies and discussion groups about Medicare for All; working with other activists at the March for Medicare for All at the state capitol; generating and coordinating communications about local ACLU People Power actions to help protect immigrants at risk; working as the first campaign manager for Anuja Rajendra’s Michigan Senate campaign; starting and running a Political Action Group (called PAG) in which she facilitated monthly meetings of diverse activist groups with the specific intent of allowing those groups to share information about the direction and progress of their activities. In addition, Melissa is a devoted mother and wife, an attorney, a songwriter, frontwoman (vocals and guitar) for the band Sweet Melissa, and a vocal coach.

Less than 6 months ago, Melissa lost a very good friend whom she loved and admired. The death of Sara was made even more tragic because of the repeated problems Sara experienced getting insurance coverage (from an irrationally constructed and unfair health insurance system) for the treatment of her rare cancer. Not many weeks later (and only 4 months ago), Melissa and her entire family experienced the tragic, violent, and inexplicable loss of her teenage nephew. Since that time, Melissa has slowly and regretfully let go of many activist group commitments in order to concentrate on her family and recovering. It’s not something she intends to walk away from for long, however. I can understand why Melissa will come back; her entire life has been about helping others and sharing her strength and vision for a better world.

We discussed the many issues that have prompted Melissa to thoughtful action. These include: getting to 100% renewable energy; Single Payer Health Insurance; stopping the national travesty of mass incarceration; the folly of labeling ourselves by tribal groups on issues, and then allowing those labels to harden; and our failure to fully integrate ourselves as a family of race-less human beings in a society still intent on maintaining discriminatory racism. I was struck by the depth of her insights and the breadth of her knowledge. As someone who can frequently go to the extremes of hotheaded reaction, I found Melissa’s approach to activism very inspiring. At the core of her thought process is the belief that we need to make a relentless, unequivocal effort to employ the tools of rationality in our striving for progress. During the discussion of nearly every topic we covered in our two-hour interview, Melissa stressed or alluded to the importance of reasonableness and working together toward the things that everybody wants.

LW: Sociologist Daniel Yankelovich did a famous study years ago showing that our formative beliefs solidify into a worldview around the age of 10. What early experiences led you to take a stance summed up in that old familiar phrase “Stand Up, Fight Back?”

MB: I grew up in Georgia in the 1970s. I grew up in Walton County, Ga., where the Moore’s Ford Lynching, the last known mass hanging in US history, occurred just 30 years before we moved there. I remember well-respected elders of our community telling racist jokes, and it was accepted. My best friend in high school, Anjanette, is black, and she wasn’t allowed to participate in a club for young women called the Debutantes of Monroe because only whites could be Debutantes. I wanted to fight for her inclusion. I wanted to tap her to be in the group the next year, but at 16 I didn’t have the courage I have now and so it didn’t happen. Seniors at our high school had a tradition at the end of the year to have a rally where the seniors “will things” to the 11th graders — a right of passage I guess. A senior “willed” a bottle of bleach to Anjanette so she “could be the color she wanted to be.” That hurt me deeply because it hurt my friend deeply. You couldn’t escape these injustices where I grew up, and as a kid, you couldn’t do much about them either.

LW: Can you tell me about a significant road marker in your journey as an activist?

MB: I worked for eight years in Georgia as a child advocate representing foster children and children in the Juvenile Justice system. I’d have to say that was a significant experience. Every day, I worked with or for kids who were locked up for normal childhood behavior. Being locked up can ruin their lives. They’re given a record and a label, and it devastates their self-esteem and their lives for years into their futures. In all the years I worked in the field, I met only one real psychopath amongst the 100s of kids I represented. We can’t lock up our kids! We just can’t. They are our future. Children are not adults. They are children.

LW: Which of your experiences as an activist brought you the most challenges in terms of personal growth?

MB: I didn’t know a lot about immigration until I started working with the ACLU Freedom Cities campaign. It helped me focus on why we need to bring more diversity to the movement, but how we need to do it right. Prior to that experience, I’d only helped a couple of clients with getting Green Cards and citizenship. What I found is that primarily white, and well-off people were helping with Freedom Cities. It took me a while to figure out how to manage myself in a situation where I was white, well-to-do and trying to help people where I was coming in as an outsider. There was some pushback there. And, I can understand that. If we truly embraced diversity in this society, that would not be an issue. But, we also need to remember that without men helping, women would not have had the vote; without white people helping, slavery would not have ended, and on and on… I firmly believe that you need people in the so-called “governing group” to be actively working on the side of those who need it, working as a force for good. But, our goal should be to get everyone on board.

LW: What is one of the biggest problems you think we face with regard to creating positive change?

MB: I think when people identify with a tribe and decide about others that “you’re not on my team,” they shut themselves down to hearing and interacting with the other side. It’s like with the gun issue; we demonize them and they demonize us. Mothers Demand Action insists that you don’t demonize the other person or party because that just shuts everything down. We must get out of our tribes and work together on the ISSUES, not on deciding what it means to be in “our tribe,” and who is in our tribe and who is not.

LW: I feel that most, if not all activists are at risk for burn-out and that we all need to engage in self-care. You once told a PAG group I attended that you “worship in the temple of music.” You’re a phenomenal musician, a priestess in that temple. Is music a means of relaxation and recreation for you, or do you have other secrets to self-care?

MB: Music is the one thing that eases my mind when it’s spinning out of control, makes me smile when the blues wash over me, makes me confident when I’m feeling worthless. It’s the one thing that I did not give up when I fell apart. It’s the one thing I can do without thinking. I’ve always felt that humans communicate at a different level through music. I even wrote that into one of the songs on our new album. It’s called P’nut and it’s the bridge: “Music is life. Music is love. Music is wise. It comes from Above.”

LW: I’d really love to hear that sometimes, Melissa! Speaking of the power of the arts, what’s the one book you have found most inspiring, that you would recommend for fellow activists?

MB: I recommend Life on Purpose by Vic Stretcher. But, not just for fellow activists but for everyone.

LW: What do you consider your most valuable contribution to our efforts to create positive change since Trump’s inauguration on 1/21/17?

MB: I’m really proud to have been part of the coalition of people and groups who worked to create the Washtenaw Immigrant Justice Coalition. But, my heart sings when I think about PAG (which I hosted and facilitated) and the number of wonderful presentations made by members of various groups around Ann Arbor in those meetings. That sharing between people about what they were doing led to a greater understanding of what the issues we’re facing are, what others were doing, how we could better do what we’re doing, and it helped facilitate networking and friendships among activists.

LW: Who are the people or groups who have most impacted you as you’ve worked as an activist?

MB: I’ve worked with so many really great people here in Ann Arbor, so the list would take pages of space. But, I’ll choose three who’ve really impacted me most recently, as I’ve been recovering. I’d like to give a shout out to Laura DePalma for encouraging me to use problems as a fuel for developing the strength to create good; to Anuja Rajendra for insisting in her campaign that there will be no name calling, and no categories; and to my dear husband and son for tolerating my drivenness — and then having the courage and honesty to tell me, in the aftermath of our family tragedy, how much they need my attention now.

LW: What is your most heartfelt hope for the future?

MB: We’ve got to learn how to fully integrate all races, all people in our society. We’re missing this amazing thing by not hanging out together — including the possibility of learning from each other how to go about making things work.

LW: Thank you, Melissa, for sharing your activism story! You’re an inspiration to me, and I’m sure, to many others! It’s been such a pleasure talking with you!


LW: The day after we concluded our interview about Melissa’s activism, I received a note from Melissa. We talked on the day after Kate Spade committed suicide, and that was one of the off-the-record topics we discussed. The day after Melissa wrote to me, Anthony Bourdain left the planet, through suicide. In her note, Melissa is adamant that we share this other, very important aspect of her story, and it begins with the fact that her nephew, a teenager, died by his own hand, using a gun. Melissa wrote: “I’ve been thinking about it since we met, and given the tragic suicide of not just my family member, but so many children right here in Ann Arbor, I feel that we should be really open about my condition in hopes that it will give others the courage to talk to someone.”

MB: After my nephew’s suicide, I could feel myself falling into a very deep depression. I had been there before when I was my nephew’s age, and in fact, I had a plan and didn’t tell anyone. Fortunately, I just was too scared to go through with it. I’ve had depression at other times in my life, but nothing as bad as when I was a teenager and after the death of my nephew. I went to Anuja’s house three days after the funeral and couldn’t stop crying. She would not let me leave until I made an appointment with a counselor, and I credit her for getting me on the road to recovery. The next day, I was in my counselor’s office, a complete mess. I was initially diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety. My counselor told me to go to my regular doctor’s office and see if they could put me on some medication. I said that I’d rather go to a doctor who isn’t my doctor. To this, my counselor, replied: “why?” I explained that I was ashamed and I didn’t want it in my official record. She said, “it’s part of you — why to be ashamed?” So, the next day I was in my doctor’s office and I was put on an anti-anxiety medication. A few days later, I went back in and told them that the depression was getting worse and maybe an antidepressant would be better. I was then put on an antidepressant.

LW: What made you want to tell people about it?

MB: I decided that I wanted to be very open and honest about what I was going through because I constantly wondered what would have happened if my nephew had talked to someone. Perhaps he wouldn’t have gone through with his plan. I feel that if I talk about it, and thereby encourage others to talk about their experiences with suicide or mood disorders, we can, as a society, better work to prevent the growing numbers of suicide that are devastating families all over this country.

I was amazed at the reception I got from my friends and acquaintances. No one made me feel bad about it. Almost everyone had a story about depression and many had stories about suicide. One of my friends, who I met through my PAG group and People Power, came to my house to bring me some food and as we talked about what I was going through she told me that she has kept her condition a secret from everyone except her husband for 16 years. I couldn’t imagine going through life having to wear a mask for everyone. Talking with her cemented my decision to tell people.

But, I don’t just have depression. After I was put on anti-depressants, I started having these episodes that I starting calling my “fast time” to help me and others identify them. I woke up one day sweating so much that I felt like I was walking in water. I noticed that I was walking way faster than normal and my mind was out of control with thoughts. I couldn’t focus or stop the thoughts from bombarding me. I was barely sleeping and I started stuttering again — like I did when I was a child. I felt like I was completely out of control. When I was driving, it felt very strange and I thought perhaps I shouldn’t be driving. I was really scared. I didn’t want to live in that condition. A few days later I had my first meeting with my psychiatrist. He immediately took me off the antidepressant and put me on Seroquel, a medication used for bipolar disorder. My counselor and I had talked about bipolar disorder, but, it was too soon to know if I had it. The doctor told me that antidepressants can trigger a manic episode in people with bipolar. He actually wanted to hospitalize me that day, but, I refused. Instead, I told him it was ok to call Marco, my husband, and he would monitor me. We were both scared that night, but it was an amazing experience to know that someone who loved and supported me was as scared as I was, and was willing to see me through this unexpected journey into an unexplored country.

LW: I have a second cousin with bipolar, and she’s the only person I know who has the condition. Her mood swings were sometimes so extreme, that I can’t even begin to see you as someone who was diagnosed with bipolar.

MB: I get that a lot. I felt that way too, but, through counseling and my own research, it actually makes a lot of sense; just like there is a spectrum for autism disorders, there seems to be a spectrum for this disorder. Also, I know other people who are bipolar, and they seem just like you and me. In fact, one of my friends came to talk to me about it because she has bipolar. She was hospitalized for it once and couldn’t work for 18 months while she tried to get it under control. She’s an amazingly organized and dedicated person, and very successful. She told me that bipolar is a part of me but it doesn’t define me. She told me she uses it to her advantage — she’s like a superwoman at work. So, that’s what I decided to do. I’ve given myself through the summer to get it under control through medication and counseling and then I will start very purposefully taking on new projects.

The main thing you do in counseling — at least the main thing I’m doing — is come up with strategies to keep your moods from getting out of control. The medication helps to even out the extreme mood swings, but, you can still have them. So, when I feel like I’m walking in water, I know the mania is about to start. The first thing I do when that happens is count backwards from 25 to 0 and imagine myself walking downstairs. That helps keep me in the moment and helps prevent the mood take-over. Then I immerse myself in something that I don’t have to think too hard to do — like rearranging a room, playing music, cooking, putting a puzzle together, making jewelry or playing tennis. Those activities really help to keep me in control. I also know that I have to take my medicine every day because I usually get a manic episode when I forget to take my medication.

The depression is still there and I think it will take a long time for it to go away. I cry every day especially when I pass little league fields (my nephew adored baseball) or see my nephew’s photo. But, it’s not as severe as it was and I have amazing anchors in my life like my husband and son to keep my mind from going to the nihilistic thought process that pervaded my thoughts in February. I also have a great community of support and my friends “check on” me a lot. They are really there for me.

I’m telling you all this, Laurie, and I want you to share it because it is hard for people to understand how someone like me could ever be depressed. I have an amazing family, a beautiful house, and in general, a very fulfilling life. Mood disorders have nothing to do with what your life is like. No one signs up to have them; no one has control over whether they get them; no one who has them wants them. We should not feel ashamed. We cannot let shame overtake us, because that shame is an impediment to recovery – and can lead to suicide, which is the 10th leading cause of death in our country. Our children are killing themselves at an alarming rate and most of them don’t reach out to get help because they are ashamed. Adults, especially those working with children and those governing our communities, our states, and our country, have to do something to change this situation. I’m not an expert in this field so I don’t know what the answer is; but, I do know that it can’t be swept under the carpet or hidden behind a mask. There has to be a way to reach people and let them know that suicide is not the only answer. I hope my honesty will help others dealing with depression, bipolar, or any mood disorder, to open up about it. Openness and acceptance (beginning with ourselves and extending to the entirety of society) may just be the first key to changing this epidemic.

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